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Education the key to building Holocaust awareness, according to new survey

January 27th, 2022

Although a large majority of Australians believe there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, a new national survey on the nation’s awareness and knowledge of the catastrophe recommends a stronger focus on Holocaust education to help redress the finding of almost one in four Australians who have little to no knowledge of the Holocaust.

The Gandel Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness in Australia Survey asked 70 questions of 3,522Australians last September. The survey reveals that 88 per cent of Australians agree that “we can all learn lessons for today from what happened in the Holocaust.’’

The Gandel Foundation commissioned the survey, and a group of Deakin University academics undertook the research. Similar surveys have been done in the USA, Canada, UK and France. The report was released on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27).

The survey makes an important distinction between knowledge of the Holocaust – assessed by the extent of knowledge of a set of factual statements about the Holocaust – and awareness of it, which is framed as “acknowledging the true scale of the Holocaust and caring about Holocaust education”.

And while all Australian age groups showed a high awareness, it was Millennials – and women – who revealed a higher awareness.

“Younger people seem to have a higher quality of awareness of the Holocaust than older people, whereas older people have more knowledge of it than awareness of it,’’ Deakin University researcher and genocide scholar Dr Donna-Lee Frieze said.

And she stressed just how important it was to go beyond just knowledge of the Holocaust. “This survey shows us that knowledge is not enough: it’s just not…it’s absolutely not,’’ Dr Frieze said.

Awareness is often built through direct engagement with Holocaust survivors, whose lives remain a vivid testimony. However, the number of those survivors is declining with the passing of time, and as Dr Frieze explained it, there needs to be consideration given to how best to replicate survivors’ role as a vital component of Holocaust education.

“We know that survivors are the best and the most effective tool for Holocaust awareness…,’’ she said. “And if you learn about genocide, then you learn about refugees, you learn about asylum seekers, and you learn about minorities.’’

“I suspect once the holocaust survivors have gone, Holocaust remembrance is going to be different,’’ Dr Frieze said. “I think we’re going to feel a greater responsibility. For years, we’ve taken a back step as educators and let the survivors do the educating, so I think it’s going to go beyond people like me and I think we’re going to feel a greater responsibility as a society and as a community to educate.’’

Although the survey revealed a good knowledge of some of the aspects of the Holocaust – when it happened and what it refers to, among other factual statements – there was almost one in four Australians who had little or no knowledge of the Holocaust. Contrary to their higher level of awareness, 30 per cent of Millennials have little or no knowledge of the Holocaust.

The survey also revealed a lack of knowledge about Australia’s own involvement in events surrounding the Holocaust, including the protests from Indigenous Australians to the German consulate in Melbourne against the treatment of German Jews in 1938.

The important role education plays in helping to build awareness was recognised in two separate responses: 69 per cent of Australian think that “more needs to be done to educate people about the Holocaust”, while 66 per cent agreed that “…it should be compulsory for schools to teach about the Holocaust.”

Victoria has introduced mandatory Holocaust education in Years 9 and 10 and NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory have mandated minimum hours for Holocaust teaching in schools. However, there is no similar arrangement in South Australia, Western Australia, the ACT and Tasmania.

The Gandel Foundation has been integral to amplifying and supporting the importance of Holocaust education and its own Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators was recognised with an Australian Philanthropy Award in 2020

The Federal Government has also committed funding to redevelop existing Holocaust museums and centres – and build new facilities – in each capital city.

The survey makes eight recommendations:

1. Include the Holocaust on the curricula of Australian states and territories, and support teachers with ongoing accredited professional development.

2. Develop strategies to drive engagement with Holocaust museums, memorials and educational institutions.

3. Research, create, and distribute specific resources to address gaps in Holocaust knowledge, especially the period 1933-1939, and as it relates to Australia.

4. Develop a research agenda to understand the long-term impact of Holocaust education in schools and museums.

5. Challenge antisemitic myths and stereotypes in education through support for education programs.

6. Improve communication over the need for annual commemorative activities.

7. Provide opportunities for students to engage with Australian Holocaust survivor testimony; and

8. Repeated cross-sectional research on Holocaust knowledge and awareness. 

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